Harness racing saw its own shadow one night last week at New Jersey's Meadowlands Race Track and, predictably, it was scared to death. The sport has always been scared—that city folks wouldn't like it, that dogs and jai alai would overtake it, that real or imagined scandal would ruin it. And, most of all, scared that it might do something foolish—or something perceived as such—which would give those supercilious thoroughbred types even more reason to look down their noses at the trotters and pacers. Indeed, with the exception of Canada, no person, place or thing has grown up with a bigger inferiority complex than harness racing.
So it seemed perfectly in character last Wednesday that when the bold and brassy Meadowlands offered the standardbreds in the Woodrow Wilson Pace for 2-year-olds far and away the biggest purse ever for any breed of horse—$2,011,000—some in the sport saw the huge shadow cast by that pile of money and were frightened. After all, the record thoroughbred purse, awarded last year for Hollywood Park's Gold Cup, was a mere $500,000. (The biggest purse in all racing had been the $1,280,000 of the 1979 All-American Futurity for quarter-horses at Ruidoso Downs, N.M.) Gosh, they asked, is $2 million too much? Is it in poor taste? Are we doing the right thing? What will people think? Does it make all our other races insignificant? "Don't you think," said one horseman, "that it's a little bit gross?"
It was only 17 months ago that Bob Quigley, the Meadowlands' general manager, was sitting in his office considering whether a $1 million race was possible. "It sounds like an awful lot for a horse race, doesn't it? But on the other hand, why not?" When asked after last week's Woodrow Wilson Pace how big the purse might be next year, Quigley said, "It does seem to me that $2 million is more than sufficient."
Indubitably. New York Times columnist Red Smith groused that this kind of loot "is a downright insult to money." Said one driver, "You can't put it in perspective, because we have lost all perspective." Just consider that a $200,000 race is still thought to be very big, for thoroughbreds or standardbreds. The purse for this year's Kentucky Derby was $346,800. Harness racing's showiest event, the Hambletonian, paid $300,000 in 1979.
August 17, 1980
All the emphasis on money and on the standardbred vs. the thoroughbred almost obliterated what little public interest there was in the horses in the Woodrow Wilson. It didn't help that perhaps the best 2-year-old, the Stanley Dancer-trained French Chef, failed to qualify. The winner was Land Grant, 15 to 1 in the morning line, whom the crowd of 27,441 scrutinized and sent off at 69 to 1. He was the victim of racing confusion at the first turn and had poor position all the way to the turn for home, where he was seventh in a field of 12. But while the others tired and got in each other's way, he came home in a ho-hum 1:56[4/5] to get the winner's haul of $1,005,500. Second was Armbro Wolf, who got $502,750. Nero's BB was third, the filly Areba Areba fourth and the 4-to-5 favorite, Slapstick, who had suffered horrendous traffic problems, fifth. Of Land Grant, who was purchased at Harrisburg for a modest $60,000, winning trainer-driver Del Insko said, "This was his future." Very likely so, and if Land Grant ever does anything noteworthy again, it will be to the utter amazement of industry insiders.
The big question, of course, was why put up $2 million for a bunch of lightly raced 2-year-olds that hardly anybody had heard of. The answer, basically, was to try to buy the hearts and minds of the American sports fan on the 179th and final night of this year's harness racing season at the Meadowlands.
According to Thurman Downing, owner of Nero's BB, whose third-place finish was worth $241,320, this effort was only a qualified success. "If this had been a thoroughbred race," he grumbled, "it would have been a huge deal." Still, it is primarily because of the aggressiveness shown by the Meadowlands since it opened in 1976 that harness racing can hold its head up at a thoroughbred cocktail party. The proof is in the numbers.
Of the top 15 money-winning horses last year, eight were thoroughbreds and seven were standardbreds. Standardbreds are a better business deal. At the Tattersalls sale in Lexington last year, the average harness-horse price was $33,505, while at Keeneland in the same town, the average price for a thoroughbred was $200,425. The most ever paid for a standardbred yearling was $385,000, for Cobra Almahurst in 1978, and only three harness horses in history have brought $300,000 or more at auction. The other two are Cool Wind and Delmonica Hanover. On the other hand, in 1979 alone, 64 yearling thoroughbreds were purchased for $300,000 and up.
While thoroughbred attendance was off 2% in 1979, standardbreds were down 1.3%, a tiny difference but potentially a meaningful trend. When Niatross raced at the Meadowlands a fortnight ago for what was then the biggest harness racing purse, $1,011,000, the crowd was 42,616; when Spectacular Bid raced at Chicago's Arlington Park a day later, the gate was 29,611.
Nevertheless, there remains something more than vaguely unsettling about a $2 million purse, particularly for two-year-olds. It brings to mind what Texas oilman Clint Murchison Sr. once said, that money, like manure, does a lot of good when spread around, "but if you pile it up in one place, it stinks like hell."
In fact, the big race did get a little out of hand financially. When Racing Secretary Joe De Frank first set forth the conditions in 1977, he hoped that maybe, just maybe, it could become a $1 million race. This appeared to be a reasonable prospect when last year's purse reached $862,750. He figured that this time owners of 185 horses would pay the $1,000 nominating fee; 263 did. Then, when the $3,000 May sustaining payment was due, he figured perhaps 90 horses would still be in; 154 were.
Nobody, says De Frank, was twisting any arms, and the truth is, owners who had bought nice yearlings were simply motivated by greed. Like they say, money isn't everything, sometimes it's not even 99%. "I think the guys who are griping are the guys who were eliminated," said De Frank. "I wish the race had been for $3 million."
One of the gripers is also one of the sport's wealthiest owners, Norman Woolworth. He complained that the various payments to keep a horse eligible—a total of $14,500 for each pacer that made the starting field—meant there were "an awful lot of good owners with potentially good horses who just couldn't take that financial risk." Woolworth is co-owner of Stoner Creek Stud in Paris, Ky., where the outstanding Meadow Skipper stands. Skipper's stud fee in 1978 was $20,000; this year it has jumped to $40,000. For that reason Woolworth's theory just doesn't wash, because a man who pays big bucks for a yearling can hardly be expected to flinch at what amounts to pocket change. Lou Guida, syndicate manager of Niatross, spent $76,000 to keep his 2-year-olds eligible for the Woodrow Wilson and not one made it. "I'm not unhappy," he says. "I had a shot at a $2 million purse. That's fair."
Surprisingly, it was some of the winners who felt the queasiest about all the money. Bob Lipman, owner of Slapstick, said, "Of course $2 million is too much money. I earned $100,000 for being fifth. That's crazy." Stephen Lang, a New York lawyer and half owner of the winner, said at a post-race victory party, "It's ridiculous. A race like this destroys the other races. And it takes so much away from the country tradition." Lang recalled that when the Woodrow Wilson was in the offing, the late Peter Haughton—the sport's most promising young driver before he was killed in an auto accident near the Meadowlands last winter—had said, "It's obscene to offer that much money. I sure hope I get the rail." But Lee Broglio, Slapstick's trainer, aghast at the suggestion that the purse was too big, expressed no such ambivalance: "Too much? You're kidding. There's never too much."
The sport is to be lauded for trying to show that it is big league and thus worthy of attracting money from new investors. But are there too many rings on one hand? "It doesn't embarrass me," De Frank says. "The more the merrier." Let Tony Abbatiello, president of the New Jersey Standardbred Owners and Breeders Association have the last lip-smacking word: "The name of the game is that pot of gold. The human being, by nature, is a dreamer and a gambler."